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August 8, 2014 11:39 am

Facebook Friends Without Benefits: The Social Cost of Hamas’s War Against Israel

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avatar by Deborah Danan

A Jewish photojournalist in South Asia receives threatening messages from "friends" on Facebook. Photo: Courtesy

Bat-sheva Hass, a new immigrant from Holland who lives in Jerusalem, posted a short clip of herself on Facebook ducking at a bus stop while a siren rips through the air. Naturally, the comments she received – many of which were from friends back in the Netherlands – were mostly concerned with her wellbeing.

Then there was a post from Naima Oustou, a Dutch “friend” of Muslim-Moroccan origins, that read thus: “Do not forget to thank Satanyahu. Lucky you. Wish that the children of Gaza had an Irone [sic] Dome too! Sorry I forget it’s not a war. It’s genocide..!”

The Algemeiner put out a call for social media users who have lost Facebook friends over the conflict in Gaza to reach out and share their experiences. The response was overwhelming. Within a matter of hours, hundreds of stories flooded in. Painful vignettes of how 20-year-friendships ended in the blink of an eye over posts which turned sour. Cruel, personal attacks from strangers and schoolmates alike.

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Apart from Bat-Sheva, there was a surprising number of responses from other Dutch immigrants. Daniel Toledo explained how his liberal upbringing meant that he was friends with people of all religions, including many Muslims. Daniel lamented however, that it wasn’t long before negative videos and posts seeped into otherwise nonbelligerent debates on the conflict. At that point Daniel, like so many others, decided to disassociate himself from those people by unfriending them. “It feels like they are against my right to exist,” he said. “I can’t be friends with someone who thinks I don’t deserve to live.”

Many of the stories were painful accounts of ancient friendships that were severed. Shir Halyo wrote of her friend Samah, a Sunni Muslim who was her best friend growing up in Toronto. The friendship ended with a postscript from Samah saying she “no longer recognized who [Shir] was.”

And then of course, there were more extreme cases of outright anti-Semitism. Jon Antflick wrote that after blocking one friend, the latter came after him on Whatsapp and Viber with harassing messages.

There were a few choice words and phrases that kept cropping up in people’s experiences again and again. The more extreme ones included “genocide,” “Holocaust,” “Nazi,” “Hitler was right,” “concentration camp,” and “baby killers”. For Simon Levy, Holocaust-related accusations was where he drew the line. “Criticism of Israel I can take,” said Levy. “Even ignorant, stupid rants about the army. But the second you bring up Hitler or anything like that, you are erased from my life and certainly from my Facebook.”

Adam Segal had a slightly different take on things: “I actually invited people to unfriend me if they were going to accuse me and my countrymen of being child-murderers. Lost 34 ‘friends’ overnight. Good riddance!” Segal was so disturbed by an 18-year friendship that ended over Facebook he wrote a blog post about it. After he had defriended both his childhood friend and his friend’s wife, the debate on her Facebook page regarding Segal’s view continued to rage on in his absence, with slurs like “a**hole” and “barbaric moron” directed at Segal and Jews in general.

In Segal’s words, “It’s one thing having to defend my country to strangers. It’s another thing to have people I know, friends, associate me with cold blooded murder of innocent children while flat out denying that I spend my life under constant threat from neighbors who would sooner see me dead than share a drink with me while our children play together.”

An anti-Semitic illustration on "The Untold History" Facebook page. Photo: Facebook.

Germany was another country with plenty of testimonies. Dave Soudry wrote that the last straw for him was when debates with people he considered to be his friends spiraled into finger-pointing fests which included the following gem from a friend of 15 years: “Your family are murderers! Go to Israel and kill children together with them!”

Isabell Maria, a fellow German, reported that what really got to her was a graphic post on a friend’s wall of images of the bloodied, murdered Fogel family slain by Palestinian terrorists  in 2011 with a headline above it, “This is how the IDF left a home in Gaza.” When she attempted to dispute the picture, she was told that she was “brainwashed” and a “fascist child murderer”. In another case of falsified photos, Nicholas Shane had three Muslim friends defriend him simply for pointing out that the photos of dead Gazan children on their walls were actually photos of children from Syria.

The invectives hurled at Dresden native Bettina Tita Mundloch became so threatening that she actually had to flee Germany and seek refuge in Israel. The descendant of concentration camp survivors, Mundloch found herself forced to remain silent whenever she encountered incitement regarding Jews or Israel. Two weeks ago, Mundloch’s desperation drove her to quickly buy a ticket to Ben Gurion airport without even procuring a visa. She immediately joined the advocacy “war room” at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzilya where she monitors anti-Semitic internet campaigns and calls to riot in her native Germany. Mundloch is currently in a battle with Israeli authorities to grant her an extended “asylum” visa.

After defriending someone, New Zealander Frith Maberly received an email that said, “The fact you have unfriended me says you don’t want to be associated with people who oppose the killing of women and children.”

It appears that no country is immune to the ignorance, Israel-bashing and outright anti-Semitism that has become so prevalent in this conflict. In the US, Meira Marom was ecstatic when one of her favorite authors – considered the darling of the fantasy and sci-fi genre – accepted her Facebook request. Yet after a vitriolic debate ensued on the author’s Facebook page, which included a link posted by the author with a guide on “How to Criticize Israel Without Being Anti-Semitic,” Meira said that she couldn’t stomach it any longer. Before disavowing herself of her former idol she reprimanded the author for allowing such a discussion to take place on her wall.

A Jewish photojournalist in South Asia who out of security concerns requested to remain anonymous, was instructed by “liberal, intellectual” friends from Europe to “Go back to your only land: Hell.”

Meanwhile, Ruth Waiman was shocked to discover that those who defriended her were not her Muslim or other non-Jewish friends, rather it was her Jewish friends who cut her off for her pro-Israel stance. There were others too who shared Waiman’s experience, with one signing off with the oft-repeated truism that “sometimes we are our own worst enemy.”

But it wasn’t all doom and gloom. There were some reports – albeit scant – from people who received positive feedback regarding their posts on Israel. Dan Pomerantz said, “Maybe I was just plain lucky but I received positivity and encouragement and support…Despite the haters, despite the news and incorrect ‘facts’, there are people who ‘get it’ and care. When you’re running to a bomb shelter it helps to know that.”

Isabell Maria, the aforementioned German who protested the photos of the Israeli Fogel family being passed off as Palestinians, initially closed her Facebook account as a result of all the abuse. But she decided to turn it back on when she received a message from a friend in Australia telling her that his entire view on the conflict changed solely on the basis of his reading her posts.

Finally, there are those who have made a conscious decision to no longer allow the abuse to get to them. Amy Lanoie, a New Jersey native living in Tel Aviv, said that her boyfriend made her take a step back and realize that whether or not she was able to convince a “friend”, it did not change what was happening around her. It didn’t stop the sirens and neither did it stop the suffering that Hamas has inflicted on both Israelis and Gazans. Lanoie continued, “I can discuss politics civilly, but to me, this isn’t politics; this is life.

“And when a ‘friend’ accuses you of believing that innocent children deserve to die because they are taught to shoot rockets, then that is personal, and hurtful, and not just politics. They talk about it, while we live it.”

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